History and the problem with Nelson Semedo

In the wake of the stellar Sergi Roberto performance against Real Madrid, one helped immesurably by team setup and an astonishing helper performance from Ivan Rakitic, the expected reaction happened.

Sergi Roberto is a better defender than Semedo, the eleven should always feature Sergi Roberto over Semedo in matches that matter, Semedo is talented but …

Etc, etc.

Leaving aside the seductive nature of coming to a permanent conclusion from a temporary situation, Semedo faces a much bigger problem in his quest to find a home on the right side of the Barcelona defense: perception and history.

Like it or not, culers want their heores to be a certain type of player, and Sergi Roberto is that player. He’s from La Masia, he’s smart, he’s an overachiever who knows angles, works hard and always makes the right play. We are suspicious of physically gifted players. We almost resist them for the ease with which they deal with the game.

Look at a moment in the Lyon match, as Memphis came running at Semedo full tilt, full of pace and guile with the ball at his feet. Semedo ran right at him, stood him up, took the ball and moved into attack. Just like that. He made Ferland Mendy, one of the brightest two-way talents in the game, look like some dude playing for a lower-table Liga side. It was a performance that not many took note of, because — and this is the dilemma — that is what Semedo is supposed to do.

Sergi Roberto on the other hand is slower, weaker, less physically gifted. It’s really cool when he plays above his expectation, which is pretty much every match, and does those Sergi Roberto things. He made a key pass in the only goal scored in the Classic, faced up against Vinicius Jr. a few times, and won those duels. That is the kind of player that culers adore.

Semedo has his problems, most notably that he is so talented that he tends to rely on that. Rather than playing angles and becoming a better player by using guile as well as prodigious physical gifts, he becomes a gazelle. He is improving in how he reads the game, but Sergi Roberto is still better in that aspect, and might always be.

What dooms Semedo among the fanbase is that theoretical worldview that likes the underdog. Iniesta and Xavi, rather than some physical specimen. Riqui Puig was a pint-sized dynamo that left ultimate hard man Gennaro Gattuso gushing after a sparkler against AC Milan in pre-season.

Ousmane Dembele has a lot of the same problem. He has so much talent that whenever he gets the ball, we expect something astonishing. What we get is something altogether different. Sometimes he will display an indifferent touch and cede possession. Other times he will embark on an electric run, end up faced by three defenders and cede possession.

But every now and again, something happens. His laconic style eases, hurtles up the pitch, and magic happens. And we say, “That is what we need to see from him all the time,” loading up his personal dump truck with the burden of expectation. Even Messi doesn’t do Messi stuff all the time. But Dembele is supposed to.

That price tag is savage. 140m is a lot of expectation for a 20-year-old wisp of a man still settling into his role at one of the biggest clubs in the world, and one with precious little tolerance for reputation or anything other than success. And so his game is dissected, the moments that he gives up the ball face more scrutiny, are more expensive than when other players give up the ball. Because money and expectation, because a player is never allowed to just be, just work into a system. We want it now. Right now.

Talented players that culers love are usually flawed in some way. Messi is pint-sized, Iniesta, physically, would be the last man called at a park kickabout. “Who wants the little guy?” Xavi almost left the club because of the fashion for physical midfielders, before going on to change the way football is played.

To be sure, prodigious talent is suspect, because how do we deal with it? Do we set the bar higher? Or do we look to understand that talented players still have a development curve that is in many ways longer because they have to unlearn to rely wholly on their talent. How patient are we supposed to be, and how patient should we be?

There is no time. Win, dammit. League, Copa, Champions League. Win, dammit. There isn’t time for nurturing, or building, or working a player in. Tried and true, and win. But when IS that time, does that time ever come? And if you’re one of those players in waiting, how long do you wait, before ringing your agent and looking for a way out?

Sergi Roberto isn’t a better defender than Semedo. Sorry. He is a player who has been forced, due to a lack of physical gifts, to take a more cerebral approach to the game, and that works. But in the Copa setup, given the same run of play, the only thing left of Sergi Roberto at the end of it would have been a tombstone. Semedo fought back and eventually held his own, usually on an island. There were shots and chances, and drama, but no goals, thanks to Ter Stegen and some wayward shooting.

Adding Arthur to the midfield brought control and work rate. Adding Rakitic in the same role that Sergi Roberto was deputized to play in the Copa match brought — well — everything as Rakitic was everywhere, dominating the right wing and midfield, and pretty much whereever he was. The only difference in the quality of Rakitic’s match on the weekend was that it was more visible. He almost invariably plays excellently for his team, even if he is less visible. He’s fun to watch.

So what of Semedo? Good question. He isn’t going to ever be the starting right back at F.C. Barcelona, even as he is talented enough to be the starting right back for a great many teams, including F.C. Barcelona. But Semedo is also a player with needs. He needs a coach to commit to him, to understand that he isn’t going to be perfect as he works into the player he can become, needs to be coached, to learn to play angles, to not just rely on physical gifts to play his position.

That isn’t going to happen at Barcelona. Look at how quickly supporters are ready to discard a player who has been, of late, killing it, after a single spotty performance against /Vinicius. The previous matches didn’t count. Conversely, Sergi Roberto getting roasted on defense in previous matches doesn’t count, either. He stood strong against Real Madrid, so Semedo can take a seat on the bench marked “depth.”

And his coach put him there, rather than supporters. Talent makes us queasy because we don’t have THAT kind of talent. We might be good at soomething, but making it look as easy as players such as Semedo do? Nah. Sergi Roberto is a lot more comfortable for us to watch, all sweat and tresses and effort. That is a Barcelona player. And we assess then dismiss Semedo after trying to fit him into a template defined by overachievers.

What is Semedo? An underachiever. He should be better, should be playing to his talent, should be doing a lot of things, and is not fully trusted or rated for not doing those things already, all the time. Attack like a winger, defend like a fullback. Meet expectation. An overachiever is easier to manage, because if he gets outrun by a fast player, well, what do you expect? He isn’t physically gifted, but he’s smart. And we tap the sides of our heads and smile approvingly.

And players with physical gifts sit and watch. It’s weird, but it’s the way, particularly at Barça. And it probably always will be. It’s institutional, and it’s cool, but it comes with difficulties seen in how we look at a physically gifted player. La Masia turns out cerebral, often pint-sized talents who play like giants, and our chests puff out with pride. Keep your physical specimens. We have our sprites.

A player such as Semedo arrives, and we spend a lot of time figuring out why he doesn’t fit, why a player such as Sergi /Roberto fits better, rather than looking to understand the talent of a physically gifted player, and hope that a coach, even as we know better, will throw down a gauntlet and commit to the growth of that talent.

Categorized as Barcelona

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.